Turning Japanese

Humor writer Dave Barry admits he loves sushi. But he can't help making fun of it. In a recent Tropic magazine column he defined sushi as "a type of cuisine developed by the Japanese as part of an ancient tradition of seeing what is the scariest thing they can get you to eat raw." Later in the article he described his misadventures as a temporary sushi chef at Sakura, a Japanese restaurant in Coral Gables, where the owner had invited him to try his hand. "I produced this mutant food unit leaking random seafood parts," he wrote. "I also had a problem with my sizing: Sushi rolls are supposed to be small, bite-size morsels; mine were more along the lines of seaweed-covered hams."

I love sushi, too, but I can't help being somewhat apathetic about it, and about Japanese restaurants in general. After all there are only so many ways to describe a slab of raw fish on vinegared rice. As for sushi rolls, chefs seem preoccupied with shoving as many different food items as possible into the rice cylinders, in the process creating "morsels" that are hardly "bitesize," unless you're Godzilla. And cooked Japanese fare is frequently limited to tempura, teriyaki, and the occasional yakisoba. Yawn.

Coincidentally Sakura owner Bok H. An feels the same way. He runs two Americanized sushi spots (the other is in the Doral), and detected a vacuum in South Florida's high-end Japanese cuisine scene. Enter Yasumoto Japanese Bistro, his latest venture, an upscale, indoor-outdoor restaurant on the second floor of Bal Harbour Shops. An unveiled this redo of the former Coco's Sidewalk Cafe in October, adding an oak floor and mahogany sushi bar to the existing stylish, clean-lined interior, where a handful of tables seat a total of ten diners, and spotlights illuminate the sushi bar; white-linen-covered tables with approximately 110 seats are outside on the balcony. (After speaking with An, who has spent a good amount of time and money creating his new eatery, I can see why he and Barry would get along. When I asked him how he would describe his restaurant's decorative wrought-iron chairs, he replied, "Very expensive.")

Yet according to An, so far the public hasn't paid much attention to his investment. Perhaps that's a result of Yasumoto's second-floor location (An's reasoning). Or maybe diners still believe that the mediocre Coco's still occupies the space (it moved to Aventura several months ago). More likely it's because most folks assume this Japanese "bistro" is just another typical sushi bar, located in a city already rife with rice-and-fish counters. Now don't get me wrong, Yasumoto does have a sushi bar, where chef Soo Won ably holds forth. His salmon skin roll, for example, consisted of tidbits of seaweed-wrapped rice filled with crunchy, salty grilled salmon skin and scallions, with a trickle of eel sauce introducing notes of sweetness. And a main course of mori awase (sashimi) was wonderful. Beautifully presented in swirls and loops, interspersed with mounds of pink, pickled ginger and eye-smarting wasabi, the buttery white tuna, meaty red tuna, salmon, and yellowtail were tender and cool, a touch below room-temperature. Though we were disappointed that two sushi-bar appetizers weren't available (raw beef marinated Korean-style and grilled yellowtail jaw served with ponzu sauce) we realized immediately it would be difficult to go awry with a traditional sushi meal here.

But the real draw for me was the rest of the menu, conceived and prepared by executive chef Justin Murphy, who formerly worked at Nemo and was once top toque at Fish. He brings a fusion experience with him -- just what An was looking for. "Sushi is my bread and butter," An explains. "Restaurants like Lure, China Grill, and Pacific Time have tried to add sushi, and it didn't work. For me to incorporate sushi was easy. I just added world cuisine instead of teriyaki and tempura, which are boring."

As a result Yasumoto is anything but dull. Inventive Pan-Asian starters and entrees beckon the sashimi-weary. Among the former: wok-charred calamari with a spicy lemongrass broth and wilted spinach, and Maine lobster cocktail with daikon salad. Main courses include grilled mahi-mahi with sauteed peaches, red onion, and mirin served over jasmine rice, and grilled Atlantic salmon with baby eggplant salad and Chinese hot mustard. We especially admired an appetizer of barbecued duck potstickers with ponzu dipping sauce. Though these were something of a misnomer -- deep-fried, the potstickers were more like fried wontons than the pan-fried dumplings their name implies -- they were nonetheless tasty. The generous pieces of duck were immersed in a rich, hoisin-type barbecue sauce, and the crisp noodle that surrounded the poultry made for a terrific textural contrast. Saffron-infused crab and corn chowder was a fabulous take on Chinese velvet corn soup; the silky, cream-based broth tasted like a bisque, with fragrant bits of crab complementing the deep corn flavor.

Not every item on the extensive menu has its roots in the Far East. One dish we particularly enjoyed was a porcini-dusted double-cut veal chop. Though the chop had been grilled just a little too long for my liking (medium-well rather than the medium we'd requested) the meat was still juicy and pleasant. Under the chop were truffled white beans threaded with arugula, while a red wine-peppercorn sauce added intensity to the mild veal. Another main course, African snook, was even more unexpected, and unexpectedly good. A large marine fish resembling a pike, the snook tasted more like trout. The meaty white fish had been roasted "en papillote" with truffled leeks, tomato, and white wine. The paper in which the fish had been wrapped effectively steamed the flesh, tenderizing it and releasing a tantalizing aroma when pierced. The horseradish-infused mashed potatoes that came with the dish were rich, filling, and fattening.

The menu could use some fine-tuning. A starter of smoked Pacific oysters on cucumber discs with horseradish creme fra”che was unaccountably bland, and the oysters themselves were somewhat slimy. Ginger-sesame grilled sea scallops were brought to the table almost raw and cold, resulting in a bitter aftertaste. The billed green papaya salad with chilis and lime on which the scallops were served was actually made with ripe papaya, which didn't have the same crisp punch as the green variety.

The servers also could use some fine-tuning. When the waiter brought us an amuse-bouche (a gratis preappetizer) from the sushi bar, he wasn't able to tell us what it was. After returning to the sushi bar for consultation, he eventually announced, "It's white fish."

"How is it prepared?"
Blank stare. (Battered and fried, then served cold in a light soy sauce, we learned.) He didn't know how to describe the dishes either, and while he was pleasant enough, he wasn't savvy as to what was on the 86- list: the aforementioned yellowtail jaw and marinated raw beef. (The manager was extremely helpful, however, directing the staff to fill our water glasses and even serving some of our dishes himself.) After striking out with the yellowtail and raw beef, we settled on stone crab claws with wasabi-mustard sauce. These reminders that stone crab season has begun were a special starter, virtually guaranteed to be on hand. Dense meat from the two large claws came away easily from the shell, while the mayo-based wasabi sauce cleared my sinuses.

If An's other restaurants, where the fare may be typical but undeniably fresh and good, are a reliable measure, then Yasumoto will ultimately succeed. It took years for local fusion eateries, as well as Chinese and Thai places, to add sushi bars in an attempt (failed or otherwise) to broaden their scope and widen their appeal. No reason why it shouldn't work the other way around.

Yasumoto Japanese Bistro
9700 Collins Ave (in Bal Harbour Shops), Bal Harbour; 305-861-5475. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10:30 p.m.

Salmon skin roll $5.25
Duck potstickers $7.95
African snook $18.95
Mori awase $21.95
Veal chop $28.

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